East Side Voice

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It’s muggy weather today from the torrential rain last night. I enjoy the rain for the sound and smell, how green the trees and grass become, but the storms leave behind puddles and air clogging the sinuses like globs of wet tissue. Ronnie is meeting with a friend for pizza in the Irvington neighborhood, and wanted me to drive because she is still unfamiliar with the streets and parking on the East Side. I agreed to it because I can go to 10 Johnson Ave Coffee on Washington & Ritter, and crank out some writing. However, those plans had to change because of a live show going on at the coffee shop. The inside of 10 Johnson is divided into two areas. The first area is when you walk in, and there are small tables to the right with chalk art on the wall, and on the left is the counter where you can order specialty coffee drinks, tea, regular coffee, pastries, and regular food. When you make a turn to the right there is another room with books on the left with regular chairs, a brown couch, and a coffee table. To the right are benches, chairs, and tables for people to sit, drink their beverages, eat their food, and/or write. Behind the brown couch is what I call a Murphy Stage folded against the wall that can be unclamped, and pulled down elevating the band by six inches—not very much. Sometimes 10 Johnson host groups that take up the corner, and other times like this they have bands who need the stage. While the barista and the band set up, I typed out maybe one hundred words, and decided to pack up and leave. A band playing didn’t bother me, and I enjoy the groups who play at 10 Johnson, but I needed to get in some writing. The Murphy Stage took up a chunk of the room, and I thought I would be rude to take up space ignoring the band’s performance.

Walking east on Washington there is a bit of an incline, and air already stuffed with moisture made the walk difficult with the breathing. I’m in relatively good shape, but I also carried a computer and three books in my rucksack, and keeping upright while walking a subtle incline can be an interesting ordeal. As I walked up to Ritter to turn right on Washington, there stood a group of people with various styles of clothing, hats, and hair standing outside The Irving waiting to see a show. I am not familiar with the bands, but I have been to a few shows at The Irving, and it’s a good venue with smooth acoustics and relaxed communion. I could feel the heat coming out of my torso through my shirt as the cars rumbled past me spilling their exhaust into the air, but passing through my nose first. I moved closer to the right when the 8 bus roared by me and a woman went past me in a black and pink blur on an evening run. Across the street, and near the outdoor seating at Jockamo’s, a group of people stood talking, smoking and laughing. I waited for the light to turn red so I could cross the intersection at Audubon and go to Starbucks. As I went in, I stood behind two indecisive, and from their body language and talk, affluent white women. All I wanted was a regular blonde roast, and I muttered my impatience, “Fucking rich, white people.” Furthermore, one of these women left her purse and cell phone unattended to get cream. Clearly, she is not from the East Side.

As I’ve written before, I am fourth generation East Side. Apparently, at the turn of the twentieth century the outskirts of Indianapolis promised a chance for a better life to my thrice great grandparents from Northern Germany, Wales, and the Highlands of Scotland. They moved here, bought the land that became my neighborhood, and I grew up in the house my great grandfather built that was sold a few years ago by youngest great aunt. The goals of my ancestors petered out after my great grandfather’s early death. The people that bought up the remaining land across 30th & Shortridge built warehouses next to the already existing Fire Station, and they could dictate who lived, moved, breathe, and have their being in their area. That’s how I feel about Irvington.

I spent the first year of my life in Irvington before my parents had to move ten minutes north because they were about to lose their home. All of Indianapolis could hear the chorus of roaring from my grandmother and great grandmother from 21st & Riley to 30th & Shortridge, “It will be a cold day in Hell if my grandson should grow up on the street!” So we moved into my great-grandmother’s house, and that’s where I lived until I found my own place. I would often frequent Irvington with my mother as we went to art shows in the neighborhood to see the creations of our neighbor two doors away. Irvington is also where I bought my first hardcore tapes. I was seventeen, I didn’t have a car, but my mother was fine with driving me to a hole in the wall Punk Rock record store, and I bought Agnostic Front’s “Liberty and Justice For…” and The Crucified’s self-titled album. Agnostic Front came out of The Bowery of New York City’s Lower East Side, and The Crucified were a group of Christians who came out of Calvary Chapel started by Chuck Smith during the Jesus Movement in Southern California. The Crucified were influenced by bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat, and I loved the sound immensely. At the time, Irvington, like any other East Side neighborhood, had a dangerous edge to it. My mother knew it, but she was unconcerned. She went to Tech by choice, and was known throughout our neighborhood as “Bad Ass White Woman.” She was six feet tall, and did not suffer fools lightly. She’s the reason my brother and I never got involved in gangs. She informed those guys that she would make their lives a living hell if they so much as breathed any intent to recruit us. I know there is a respect from gangbangers towards mothers, but I thought it funny they were more scared of my mother than a nine. I also went to Warren, and while I am by no means a tough guy, I can protect myself if pushed against the wall. But somewhere in the last 2000s, the neighborhood changed.

The medians on East Washington turned into little islands with quaint shrubs and little trees. Spaces were bought up from Arlington to Ritter, and turned into trendy restaurants and shops so people from the suburbs could move in and feel “urban,” or, at the very least, slum with us legitimate working class people to feel like they’re connected. Down the street from the Starbucks, where I am presently, is Indy Cycle Specialists. I would frequent this shop to buy necessary parts for my bike while I lived on East Michigan, four blocks west of Emerson. For one thing, the parts I needed to safely get around downtown so I could go to class were expensive, and the most basic of bikes they had there were $1,500. This is the East Side. Who the fuck has that much disposable income in this neighborhood—let alone for a basic bike? The people with that kind of money are the rich white people who moved in from the northern burbs buying up the real estate. Their presence hiked up the property value of the homes in the neighborhood squeezing out long-time residents who’ve lived here since my mother was a child. Like locusts, they fly in and quickly devour the livelihood of people who could barely survive before their arrival.

I brought this up to my friend, Eric who also grew up on the East Side. He told me he agreed with what I saw and how I felt, but that is the life cycle of neighborhoods. Yes, the East Side can be dangerous, Irvington in particular, and they can stay steeped in drugs and violence and implode, or have outside investors come in and rejuvenate the neighborhood. The latter are beneficial to those in their demographic, but debilitating to the people who have been in the neighborhood before it was marketed as trendy. I shook my head. I agreed, and I hated that he was correct, but I equally hated that I enjoyed some of the benefits like 10 Johnson and Jockamo’s Pizza. I felt like I was betraying my neighborhood, and I choked on the thirty pieces of silver while I washed it down with locally brewed beer and fashionable pizza. It’s a weird tension. Eric brought up a solution that he and his senior pastor pursued in an equally poor area on Indy’s Near West Side where they both live and serve as pastors.

The Indianapolis International Airport has a hefty amount of untaxed, unused land that investors wanted to use for a casino. They promised a revitalization of the area with all the jobs and money pouring into the neighborhood. That is true…to a point. The money coming in would be a short term solution, but would only exacerbate the poverty and desperation of Eric’s congregation and neighborhood. The money would come from affluent areas in the city and surrounding suburbs, and crime would increase because the economic disparity would be in the faces of the poor. People do dangerous things when they’re surrounded by squalor while their bellies are empty and growling. What was so disgusting about these proposals is they were done behind closed doors. The local councilman, Jared Evans, found out about the secret proposal for the casino and got local pastors involved to be a voice for the community. Eric and his senior pastor took on the local government and businesses by offering real and practical solutions to build up the community. Give the people in the neighborhood a hand up so they could create businesses on the unused land and give life to their community. Also the people could take ownership of their own lives and dignity, and could control their destiny.

That is something I can support. Creating new playgrounds and eateries for rich white people who want to look “native” in their $500 faded skinny jeans riding around on their $1,500 bicycles doesn’t help the original residents, but pushes them out while destroying their dignity. When I was an adolescent, and even today, East Siders have the unfortunate reputation of being hooligans and thugs. While that may be true for some people on this side of town it is not true of all of us. There are good people here, but sometimes people who are in survival mode are dangerous, and rightfully so. The new money assumes they can pop off and posture as they do in their former suburban neighborhoods because they could get away with that behavior. On the East Side, as well as the West Side, those same people risk losing teeth from a lead pipe to the jaw or they might be shot. Even as I sat here in this Starbucks, I almost showed the baristas real East Side. Ronnie came over after meeting with a friend, and has been patiently waiting on me as I write this piece. She has to use the bathroom, but the bathrooms are out of toilet paper. She asked the baristas for toilet paper, “We’ll get to it in a bit.” While I write this, it is 8:22 in the evening, there are two baristas, and they are not busy. I am annoyed. “I’ll go up there, and demand the toilet paper.”
“No, I’m fine. Just continue writing.”
“You know what? I have to use the bathroom, and I’ll get the toilet paper.”
“No. It’s fine. I can hold it. You don’t need to go all bulldog. If I needed to go that bad I would have gone into bitch mode.”
I was ready, too. They were rude to someone for whom I care a great deal, and I would have walked into the back room to retrieve the toilet paper. If they confronted me, like they probably would, I would tell them flat out they could either take care of a legitimate customer issue, or I could do it myself. Snobby, rich white boys need to adapt to the East Side and show proper courtesy, or they can fuck off back to the burbs from whence they came. You can’t improve a community with money alone. You also need to acknowledge the common dignity we all share as sentient beings.

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